Though critical to farmers, ranchers and consumers, the farm bill has not been at the top of the list of issues on Capitol Hill. Instead, lawmakers are debating how to avoid what’s known as the fiscal cliff. In case you haven’t heard, this fiscal cliff is a series of tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect Jan. 1.

Many farmers are hoping lawmakers will see passage of a five-year farm bill — with its $20 billion-plus in savings — as one way to keep from going over the economic precipice.

In any case, agriculture will be looking at a one-year extension of the farm bill, according to Mary Kay Thatcher, American Farm Bureau Federation senior director of Congressional Relations.

“We have 38 programs in the 2008 farm bill that expired in October,” Thatcher said. “There is no funding and no plan for continuation at this stage.”

And while disaster assistance for livestock producers may be one of the biggest concerns for Kansas producers, every one of these 38 programs have proponents clamoring to make sure their interests will be in the extension, or next farm bill.

The other key issue yet to be resolved is how to pay for it. Livestock disaster assistance alone is estimated to cost between $600 and $700 million.

That money doesn’t fall out of the sky.

Where do we find it?

Do we take it from direct payments, the conservation reserve program, food stamps, nutrition — where does it come from?

In spite of the dwindling funds available for agriculture, Thatcher said she believes Congress is well aware of the crisis impacting livestock producers. She is hopeful this will translate into some form of livestock disaster assistance.

And while most people in farm country are betting there will be a one-year extension of the farm bill, hammering out the details may be even more difficult because of the polarized Congress. An example of this is the struggle on how much to cut from the food stamp program.

 Participation in the food stamp program has increased nearly 70 percent since 2008. Republicans would like to cut this program by nearly $16 billion, while the Democrats don’t want to cut a nickel from the $770 billion.           

Only one in three children pays for his or her school lunch, Thatcher said. And only one in 16 pays for his or her school breakfast.

Now that direct payments have been cut dramatically during the last couple of years, crop insurance is the next farm program to be targeted.

“Crop insurance already has a big bull’s-eye on it,” Thatcher said. “It’s the same idea behind why people rob banks. It’s where the money is – it’s easy picking.”

 Farmers must continue to voice their opinions to members of Congress about the importance of crop insurance. Thatcher said the number of producers who contacted their congressional delegation on farming issues dropped off during the past summer. She says this is a trend that must be reversed.

“While your Kansas congressional delegation is well aware of the stakes involved in the next farm bill, your own neighbors, friends and those people in your urban and suburban areas are not up to speed,” Thatcher said. “Take time to tell them what’s happening in agriculture.”

Some of these Kansans could be the guy who sits behind you in the pew at church. They may be from rural America, but that doesn’t mean they understand 78 percent of the farm bill goes toward nutritional programs.

“We’ve got to start (telling our story) somewhere,” Thatcher said. ”Five years ago, less than one-half of farmers or ranchers knew that less than ½ of 1 percent of the HSUS money goes to animal shelters.”

Others believe if some farmers are doing well, all farmers are prosperous, Thatcher said. That’s not necessarily the case.

Kansans all know livestock producers are paying dearly for the feed for their stock. The drought has caused ponds to dry up, and pastures haven’t provided adequate grass for three years in some regions of the state.

There’s a story to tell about agriculture, and no one tells it better than engaged, knowledgeable farmers and ranchers, Thatcher said. Today, everyone must step up and speak out.

John Schlageck is a Kansas agriculture commentator.